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Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill [HL]

Volume 689: debated on Tuesday 6 February 2007

Read a third time.

Clause 18 [Secretary of State's power to require reports]:

1: Clause 18 , page 11, line 6, leave out “may” and insert “must”

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I return to this issue one more time. I noted that in Committee I was dissatisfied with the Government’s response. Having reread the debate, I consider that it is right to bring this matter back.

Put simply, this amendment would ensure that when the National Consumer Council publishes a report to give to the Secretary of State, it will also make a copy available to the public. The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, suggested that would infringe the powers in what is now Clause 17, but was Clause 16 on Report.

I direct noble Lords and the Minister to the exact wording of Clause 17, which states:

“The Council may publish any report prepared under this section”.

Any report published under that section may not necessarily cover a report prepared for the Secretary of State, as preparing reports for the Secretary of State does not fall within the scope of the NCC’s functions as described in Clause 17. Indeed, rather ironically, the National Consumer Council’s only statutory duty to report is to the consumer, in Clause 10. Clause 17 does little more than say that the National Consumer Council can publish reports if it wants to, but it has no duty to publish those reports when reporting to the Secretary of State.

Indeed, I suspect the real reason behind the Government’s resistance is that the Secretary of State can commission a report far wider in scope than that available to the National Consumer Council to report to consumers. Under Clause 18:

“The Secretary of State may direct the Council to prepare … a report in respect of any matter specified … which relates to consumer matters”.

The scope of an average National Consumer Council report to the humble consumer comprises,

“information about consumer matters, information about the views of consumers on consumer matters and information … as may be prescribed by the Secretary of State by order”.

The second substantive point is that this amendment does not seek to proscribe the National Consumer Council’s publication. Rather, it seeks to ensure that there is direct communication and thereby accountability of the information going between the National Consumer Council and the Secretary of State. The National Consumer Council is not a government department, and information transferred from it to the Secretary of State should emphatically not be treated as classified, as it is under the Bill as it stands. This is a serious point, and I hope the Minister will be able to take it on board even at this eleventh hour. I beg to move.

My Lords, the noble Baroness mentioned my name in connection with the amendment because at the previous stage I intervened to query the relationship between Clauses 17 and 18. As I understand it—with the aid of a letter that the Minister sent to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, the Liberal Democrat spokesman the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and me, which is available in the Library—Clause 17 is on the general power of the National Consumer Council to,

“prepare a report in relation to any matter falling within the scope of its functions”.

It goes on to say:

“The Council may publish any report prepared under this section”.

That is the broad and expected facility of the National Consumer Council and its role.

Clause 18, which I understand better now from the Minister’s letter than I had previously done, is rather special. It is a special situation where the Secretary of State, involved in some particular consumer problem, wants the advice of the National Consumer Council and wants, within a specified period a report on some matter relating to consumer affairs. The clause states:

“The Secretary of State may publish any report submitted under this section”.

I would put it like this. In Clause 18, the National Consumer Council is being specially approached by the Secretary of State for a special governmental purpose, and in effect that report is then in the ownership of the Government as distinct from the National Consumer Council on this special occasion. A discretion should be retained by the Secretary of State because the possibility is that that report, if it is to be full, extensive and what the Secretary of State wants to assist his work, may contain price-sensitive or other information that it is undesirable should be made public either then or generally.

It seems to me that Clause 18 is a very special power of the Secretary of State to require reports of the NCC. It does not in any way inhibit the normal independence of the National Consumer Council from the Government, and rather, especially in the case of price-sensitive information, the Government wish to retain discretion over what is published. I did not fully understand that when I intervened in the earlier debate, but it seems to me to make a lot of sense. I do not support the amendment.

My Lords, I support the amendment. Unfortunately, my noble friend Lady Miller is not able to be here today due to a family crisis, but I know that she would endorse the remarks that I am about to make.

There is always a suspicion when we hear that the Government are going to have a role in the provision of information. I am afraid that, notwithstanding the fact that this Government brought in the Freedom of Information Act, we are always suspicious when a Government want to have their hands in what may or may not be published. I was struck by the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, on Report, when she said:

“I’m listening to the National Consumer Council being changed from the body it is: brave and strong and able to publish its reports as it has done all these 25 to 30 years, not hindered by the Government in any way, fully funded by government but free to choose its work and to report as it wished”.—[Official Report, 30/1/07; col. 157.]

There can be no better argument for the noble Baroness’s amendment.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Borrie for his clear exposition, with which I wholly concur. We had a lively and helpful debate on this amendment on Report. From that debate and the earlier debate in Committee, it is clear that the intention behind the amendment is essentially the need for transparency in the Government’s dealings with the new council and public accountability. I can again confirm our wholehearted support for these intentions.

The discretion afforded to the Secretary of State by Clause 18 not to publish a report prepared for him by the council would be necessary to deal with particular circumstances, such as when the report contained sensitive information that was commercially confidential or price sensitive, as my noble friend Lord Borrie outlined. Such information might be necessary to support the recommendations in the report. However, a requirement on the Secretary of State to publish every report submitted to him might create a deterrent effect on external experts or stakeholders who might be reluctant to provide advice because it might be disclosed. Such advice may be shared with the council only on the understanding that it was not to be made public. Requiring the Secretary of State to publish every report submitted to him under Clause 18 could therefore deter the provision of useful or important information to aid the preparation of the report by the council, to the detriment of the quality of the final report and the subsequent advice provided to the Secretary of State. I cannot believe that that is the intention of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, or the noble Lord, Lord Razzall.

A key consideration here is that there may be good reasons why the content of reports prepared and submitted to the Secretary of State to aid the decision-making process should not be published. While we envisage that the Secretary of State will generally wish to publish any report submitted to him under Clause 18, it is important that this discretion is retained in order to allow for what is appropriate in each case.

If the council determines that the issue of the report is one of interest to consumers more generally, as we envisage will generally be the case, Clause 18 does not prevent the council from exercising either or, indeed, both of the powers under Clause 17 or Clause 19(2) to prepare and publish reports or advice and information for the purpose of bringing issues of importance to the attention of the consumer. A report prepared under the powers in Clause 17, for example, that covered the same issue as a report prepared under Clause 18, could be published without information that was considered to be sensitive and in a format that may be more in line with the needs of consumers.

In light of my explanation and the fact that we have discussed this on several occasions, I hope noble Lords will understand why the Government do not feel able to accept this amendment.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, for supporting the amendment. I am not going to press it; I am just going to say that this is the death knell of the National Consumer Council as we knew it. What sort of information will the Government want the National Consumer Council to give them that the general public—the general consumer—cannot know about? Never in the past has the National Consumer Council had such a constraint on it and, if the clause remains, never in the future will the council be taken to be as responsive, as independent and as innocent of the Government’s agenda as it has been. I will withdraw the amendment at this stage and hope that my friends in another place may be able to persuade the Government further. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 43 [Standards for handling complaints]:

2: Clause 43, page 26, line 6, at end insert—

“( ) A regulator must make regulations requiring its regulated providers to have in place and operate appropriate and effective internal complaint handling procedures.”

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 3 and 4. I am pleased to be able to revisit this issue with what I hope is an improved set of amendments. Amendment No. 2 would place a duty on regulators in Clause 43 to make regulations to require their providers to have in place and operate effective internal complaints-handling procedures. The amendment is complemented by Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 to Clause 46, which connect the proposed new provision in Clause 43 to the list of information that a supplier can be required to provide to the consumer. Overall, the amendments would ensure that regulated suppliers were required to have internal complaints-handling procedures and that the regulators could require the suppliers to communicate to their consumers how these procedures work.

I do not need to rehearse the arguments that I made both in Committee and on Report in this House. These amendments would put the consumer’s response to services at the heart of the consumers Bill. Complaints are not only one of the most accurate measures of how successful the delivery of a service has been but are a vital avenue for the consumer, especially with respect to essential energy and postal services.

I read with interest the words of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, on Report. I had hoped that, had he been here, he would have been able to support the slight change in the wording, which he suggested. I agreed with him wholeheartedly when he said:

“This Bill will not work unless effective mechanisms are in place to ensure that the companies meet the requirements to handle complaints far more effectively than, frankly, either the post or energy sector does at present”.—[Official Report, 30/1/07; col. 189.]

I was pleased that the Government came back with amendments that began to acknowledge the need for a best-practice element in the regulation of energy and postal providers. I hope that today the Government can realise the full potential of the Bill by accepting these amendments. They have the opportunity to send out a message that shows that the Bill will provide an incentive for a new culture in which responsible business practice empowers the consumer. It would be a great shame to miss such an opportunity. I beg to move.

My Lords, I support the amendment. My noble friend Lady Miller added her name to a similar amendment on Report. Having read the debates in Committee and on Report, having looking at the correspondence and having listened to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who, after all, will be responsible for this matter in due course—I am sorry that he is not in his place; the compliment that I normally pay him on these occasions is that he is always the best argument as to why we need not worry about this Bill—it seems to me that this has been a drafting issue. I do not think that there is any point of principle between all sides here. The noble Baroness has come up with an alternative to her original amendment which I consider to be better, and I hope that the Government will be in a position to accept it.

My Lords, I listened with great interest to the arguments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and others on this issue on Report. I agreed to give it further consideration, as the importance of the need for service providers to deal effectively with consumer complaints is in no way in doubt.

The position that we have adopted is to give regulators the power to make regulations to prescribe complaints-handling standards that would be binding on suppliers. We took this approach because we believe that a sectoral regulator is best placed to take a view on what is appropriate and necessary within its own sector. These provisions will need to be adaptable and will need to be applied on a sector-by-sector basis, with each regulator being able to take a different approach if required, to meet the needs of each sector.

On Report, the noble Baroness cited the arrangements in place in the financial services sector. The basis of the approach in that sector stems from paragraph 13(4) of Schedule 17 to the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, which states that the Financial Services Authority may make rules requiring a company to establish such procedures as it considers appropriate for the resolution of complaints that may be referred to the ombudsman scheme.

In respect of this legislation, the Financial Services Authority has determined and published the procedures that each company must have in place for the investigation and consideration of complaints. That document sets out a general requirement on firms to operate appropriate and effective internal complaint-handling procedures, and outlines in some detail what that should look like.

I believe that the intention behind the approach taken in the financial services sector is entirely consistent with the approach that we have set out in the Bill—the need for businesses to handle complaints effectively in the first instance. The Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 confers a power, not a duty, on the regulator to prescribe complaint-handling procedures to be followed by businesses in that sector. The Financial Services Authority has made use of that power to require regulated businesses to adhere to requirements relating to complaint-handling procedures.

The Bill confers on the regulator a power to prescribe complaint-handling standards. We believe that that is sufficient to ensure that complaints are handled effectively, and it is also in line with the Government’s better regulation principles, as it allows each service provider to meet those standards in the way that each provider determines is most suitable for the company, rather than prescribing the procedures that must be followed.

Regulators are established as independent bodies and must be allowed to function accordingly. We must take into account the simple fact that a regulator has a duty to protect consumers in its sector and to take consumers’ interests into account in its decision-making. With the introduction of redress provisions, which industry will have to fund—an important consideration—information about the nature and volume of complaints will be placed in the public domain.

The existence of a redress scheme to which service providers are required to belong by statute is something new for the sectors concerned here. The budgets for the consumer bodies in the energy and postal services sectors are negotiated directly with Government, and include funding for the handling of complaints. This has provided little incentive for some service providers to give the matter the appropriate attention. With the introduction of these measures, service providers will have to do more to resolve disputes first-hand. Typically, the funding structure for redress schemes is based on a case fee for each complaint referred to the scheme, and that will act as an incentive for service providers to take complaint-handling more seriously. This new statutory requirement will encourage industry to act in a different way and review its internal procedures for handling complaints.

Regulators are tasked to ensure that the market operates effectively. In relation to complaint-handling, we are adding to their existing armoury and giving them the power to make regulations to prescribe complaint-handling standards that would be binding on providers. A regulator would be failing in its duty to consumers and would be accountable for any decisions not to take appropriate action in the face of any compelling reasons to do so.

We believe that the vast majority of businesses want to act responsibly. The pressure to attract and to retain customers is a powerful and effective incentive on business to act with integrity and responsibility. While we understand the motivation behind the amendment—I listened carefully to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Razzall—we feel that the approach that we have chosen is in line with better regulation principles. I hope this explanation provides some reassurance of the merit of our approach.

My Lords, I feared this would happen. The mighty energy companies will be left to kick this into touch. They have in place a hopeless complaints systems; it is almost impossible for an ordinary consumer to complain about and to fight a wrong meter reading. Now the little energy group that knew what it was doing will be subsumed into the mighty NCC. The NCC will be a huge organisation and will not have the expertise to deal with complaints. My amendment would have been one more way to ensure that these mighty energy companies, which can well afford to do it, established a complaints procedure through which it would be possible for an ordinary consumer to take complaints through himself.

Instead, we have a Bill that is at the other end of the scale. Redress happens when everything has gone wrong, when one has gone as far as one can go and is right at the end of the line. This would have been such an opportunity for us to ensure that, at last, these energy companies would put in place a good complaints system that people could use. We have missed the opportunity and I am very sorry about that. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 46 [Supply of information to consumers]:

[Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 not moved.]

5: Before Clause 53, insert the following new Clause—

“Standards of competence

(1) Section 22 of the Estate Agents Act 1979 (c. 38) (standards of competence) is amended as follows.

(2) For subsections (1) and (2) substitute—

“(1) The Secretary of State shall by regulations made by statutory instrument designate any body of persons as an approved body to which people engaged in estate agency work, including both the sale and lettings of residential property, must belong.

(2) The approved bodies must make membership conditional on signing up to rules and codes of conduct including rules which—

(a) prescribe minimum competency standards; (b) ensure that firms have adequate professional indemnity insurance and, as appropriate, client money protection insurance; (c) require a minimum level of professional development per year; and (d) require membership of a redress scheme.””

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I make no apology for bringing this amendment, which I moved at earlier stages, before the House. I thank the Minister for his letter between Report and now.

I shall not repeat the arguments that I made before. Suffice it to say, there is a major problem, which has been recognised by all; the Minister’s noble friends Lord Grocott, Lord Davies and Lord Dubs have all tried to address the problem of bad estate agents. The history of the Office of Fair Trading is not a good one; the OFT has shown a great deal of inertia and a lack of appropriate action on this. There is enormous consumer dissatisfaction with estate agents, and it looks from the reports of the Ombudsman for Estate Agents that about one in four is likely to be the subject of a complaint.

What do the Government do about this? Nothing. They bring in a redress scheme, such as the one that has just been heavily condemned by my noble friend Lady Wilcox with regard to another sector of the industry, but they are not attacking the necessity to license and regulate estate agents. It is absurd and hypocritical that the only unregulated sector in the property-buying business is the estate agents’. Mortgage lenders, financial advisers, conveyancers, solicitors and surveyors are regulated; estate agents are not. Unless the Government accept this amendment, they will be condemning the consumer to a further period of being open to be cheated by estate agents and losing thousands of pounds. I beg to move.

My Lords, this is now the third time that we have discussed this amendment in one form or another. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, has strong views on the need for the positive licensing of estate agents but, as I have explained before during the passage of this Bill, the Government do not agree.

I do not intend to repeat the arguments again, as they have been made a number of times. The amendment is not a small addition to the Bill. It would be at odds with government policy in this whole area. The Government’s intention in this part of the Bill is to improve the current negative licensing regime. In addition to requiring estate agents to belong to approved redress schemes, the Bill will improve the enforcement powers in the Estate Agents Act 1979. Formal record-keeping requirements will provide enforcers with audit trails, making it easier to prove wrongdoing and to take enforcement action. Widening entry and inspection powers will enable enforcers to make proper use of these new powers.

Expanding the circumstances in which the OFT can consider the fitness of estate agents will enable it to remove rogue agents from the market more easily. In addition, we are confident that compulsory membership of redress schemes will help to drive up standards, as well as compensate victims of misconduct. Improving the negative licensing regime, as outlined, will tackle problems in the industry without driving up costs for consumers. However, if this does not prove to be the case, we will look at the issue again.

My Lords, what a missed opportunity. What a sad smokescreen the Government are putting up to try to convince people that they are protecting the consumer. They are doing nothing of the sort. The policy became clear in the Minister’s last letter to me: it will be left to Europe to sort it out. That is where the action now is. I have no doubt that, just as we are having the energy report attached to the home information packs forced on us by Europe from 1 June this year, we will be standing here discussing this in a few years’ time saying that this is what Europe is doing to us on estate agents. The Government have sadly missed the opportunity, which is bad for the consumer. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6: Before Clause 53, insert the following new Clause—

“Estate agency work

(1) Section 1 of the Estate Agents Act 1979 (c. 38) (estate agency work) is amended as follows.

(2) In subsection (1) after “land” insert “or who wishes to let, rent or manage residential property”.

(3) In subsection (1)(a) after “such an interest” insert “or manage, rent or, as the case may be, let such a residential interest”.

(4) In subsection (1)(b) after “of that interest” insert “or the management, letting or, as the case may be, renting of that residential interest”.”

The noble Earl said: My Lords, once again, we have discussed this amendment before. On Report, I had support from Members from all sides of the House: from the noble Lord, Lord Best, on the Cross Benches; from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble Lord, Lord Borrie—whom I am delighted to see in his place—on the Labour Benches; and from the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, on the Liberal Benches. On that occasion, I withdrew the amendment because the Minister said that he would take it away to have another look at it. He has done so, but he has not moved at all. However, it is clear that action needs to be taken. The argument that he used is justified in one sense because the Bill is based on the OFT’s report. However, that was a limited report, and it is not our fault that the Government did not do their homework and cover the subject properly. If they had, we would have a very different Bill in front of us. It is important that I move this amendment. I beg to move.

My Lords, I support the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. The phrase for this afternoon is “missed opportunity”. It has been used by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and I repeat it. We rehearsed the arguments at length in Committee. Essentially, we believe that those who lease are left naked under the Bill. Those people are, almost by definition, generally less able to afford the proper professional advice that they would normally be entitled to when entering into a leasing transaction, and therefore the redress scheme should apply to the leasing area. In addition, in recent years, we have seen substantial growth in major inner-city flat developments. Many of those flats have been bought by investors who hope to achieve capital appreciation and who, in the course of that appreciation, let the flats. Agents are involved in the letting process, and the redress scheme will not cover them. We support the noble Earl on Amendment No. 6 and will vote with him if he chooses to press it.

My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, is not rising to her feet—presumably she is the prisoner of a fortunate jailer on this topic—I shall supplement the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Lee. I must declare an interest as a director of a holding company that owns estate and letting agencies. What my noble friend said is entirely correct. In Committee and on Report, I failed to understand the Government’s answer to the point made by a number of noble Lords—particularly the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Lee—that the practices that the Bill is designed to improve the regulation of in relation to estate agents apply not only equally but even more to letting agents. Letting agents often operate in markets that are rather different from the average house build, house owner, house sale, house purchase markets that estate agents deal with. This is a wonderful opportunity for the Government to bring control of letting agents in line with the controls that they are bringing in for estate agents.

The only significant argument from the Government is that they are keeping this under review and will look at the position of letting agents. The problem with that approach is that—in particular with a Government obsessed with having Home Office Bills in the Queen’s Speech, almost to the exclusion of everything else—if the opportunity is missed to include control and regulation of letting agencies in this Bill, I defy any Minister to have the confidence to believe that there will be another opportunity in the next decade; when the matter is discussed before the relevant Queen’s Speech, they will always be told, “Oh, you had your opportunity in 2007. You didn’t put that in then so don’t think you can have the parliamentary time to have it now”. For that reason, I urge the Minister, even at this late stage—notwithstanding the fact that he appears to have the support of the Conservative Front Bench—to listen to the wise words of the noble Earl and to accept his amendment.

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, will recall that on Report I undertook to consider this matter further. I have now reviewed the arguments, but have concluded that this course is not possible under this Bill. I have written to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, to explain the reasons for that.

As that letter explains, the aim of the Bill is to implement the recommendations in the OFT report on the estate agency market in England and Wales. It was never our intention comprehensively to overhaul the 1979 Act. The OFT report did not consider the case for extending the 1979 Act to include lettings and property management. Consequently, the Government do not have the required evidence base to extend the Act in that way. In addition, there has been no consultation with industry about this proposal, in line with normal government practice.

Furthermore, amending the definition of estate agency work in Section 1 of the 1979 Act would require careful consideration to ensure that the policy objectives were achieved and all the necessary consequential changes were made, and to check for any unintended consequences. Even if all the necessary research and consultation had been done, it would not be possible to undertake this detailed and time-intensive work at this point in the Bill’s passage.

In response to points made by the noble Lords, Lord Lee of Trafford and Lord Razzall, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, I can assure noble Lords that the Government will continue to monitor the private-rented sector and the property sector more generally, including direct sales by property developers, to determine whether there is market failure. At some point there may be a need for new legislation in the property sector. I do not share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, that we cannot come back to this issue, as I pray and hope that our Government will be in power for a long time and we will have many opportunities to revisit the subject. Nevertheless, it is right that these matters are considered on the basis of proper evidence and consultation.

I hope that the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, will understand that the Government have gone as far as they can to meet his concerns. I reassure him that the Government will continue to keep a close eye on the issues that he and other noble Lords have raised in the debate today.

My Lords, the Minister said that he hoped that I would appreciate that the Government have gone as far as they can to meet my concerns. I do not think that the Government have gone anywhere to meet my concerns. They have stayed absolutely still. They have put up the usual brick wall. They have the usual word at the top of the brief for the Minister on the amendment: “Resist”. I remember it well; I lived with it for 10 years.

The Government, not we, instructed the OFT. The fact that they got their instructions wrong and, as a result, got a lousy report that did not cover another important part of the industry is not our concern. It is time that the Government put that fault behind them and remedied it. Here is a good chance to do so. I do not accept what the Minister says: that it is impossible to do all the necessary work at this stage of the Bill. I used exactly the same arguments on Bills that I was trying to take through your Lordships’ House. When I was defeated, it was remarkable how quickly those problems disappeared. The Bill might have been held up for a short period, but within the legislative Session the Bill was passed as amended.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, whom I thank for his support, and the noble Lord, Lord Lee, that it is very difficult to get legislation. There is no way that the Government would introduce a Bill solely to regulate the letting agents. That would have to be part of a bigger Bill; the DTI would have to dress it up and include it as Part 8 of a wider Bill. The chances of that are very small, so I think that we ought to test the opinion of the House.

Schedule 6 [Estate Agents' Redress Schemes]:

7: Schedule 6 , page 68, line 25, leave out “£500” and insert “£1,000”

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 7 would raise the penalty on an estate agent from £500 to £1,000. This was discussed in Grand Committee and again on Report, when an amendment was tabled to increase the penalty. I understand that there would be difficulties with the higher amount because it is normal practice to go before the courts to increase the penalty. However, given the sums of money at stake for estate agents and the profit that they can make on a single transaction, it seems reasonable to say that £500 is too small a penalty to deter anyone. I do not say that a £1,000 penalty will act as a major deterrent either, but it is better than £500. The Minister made sympathetic noises when we discussed this on Report, so I hope that the arguments are well understood; there should be no difficulty about them. My only concern is whether a £1,000 penalty will have more of a deterrent effect than a £500 one, but it is a little better. I beg to move.

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on Amendment No. 7. Previously, we moved an amendment to increase the penalty from £500 to £3,000, which would be considerably nearer the average one-off commission apparently earned by estate agents and similar for each transaction. We would obviously prefer a £3,000 fine; nevertheless, if the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has achieved any advance on £500, at least he has made progress. We support him in that endeavour.

My Lords, I, too, support the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, whom I supported at an earlier stage. He has made a little more progress than I have. I fear that even my noble friend on the Front Bench will continue to sit on her hands, so from this side we are very supportive of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs.

My Lords, Amendment No. 7, tabled by my noble friend Lord Dubs, seeks to increase the maximum amount of a penalty charge notice from £500 to £1,000 and is supported by the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. The Government have listened carefully to the arguments made in Grand Committee, on Report and today. As I said on Report, the objective is to find a sensible balance between the rights of estate agents not to be given a large fine without any due process and ensuring that the penalty charge is not an insignificant amount. Given the views expressed, we believe that setting the maximum level of the fine at £1,000 is a sensible compromise. Although the actual level will be set by regulations, a maximum of £1,000 will allow some headroom to increase the fine over time, therefore future-proofing the legislation. I thank noble Lords for their contributions and I am content to accept the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Dubs.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I am delighted.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

An amendment (privilege) made.

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.